Latrobe’s Ron Schirf set to return to NCAA Wrestling Championships — 62 years later
No matter how hard he tried, dutifully attending practice every day for four years at Latrobe, Ron Schirf never could master the game of football.
But Schirf had another talent that got him into college and onto a national platform.
He was that school’s best wrestler in the 1950s (the early years of the program), and he occupies a treasured spot among Pitt’s all-time great athletes.
He’s one of only 11 Pitt wrestlers to win an NCAA championship, defeating Navy’s Tom Stremic at 191 pounds at the 1957 championships at Pitt’s Fitzgerald Field House.
For the first time in those ensuing 62 years, the nation’s best collegiate wrestlers will be back in town Thursday through Saturday for the NCAA Wrestling Championships at PPG Paints Arena. Schirf will be there to hand the championship plaque to the winner in the 133-pound weight class Saturday night.
When Schirf, 83, was approached about being one of 10 presenters for each weight class, he graciously accepted with only one request: He wanted to do the honors at 133 because that’s where Pitt’s Micky Phillippi of Derry is expected to contend for a championship.
“I’m hoping I can hand him at least a placewinner,” Schirf said.
Schirf was part of the golden era of Pitt wrestling when seven wrestlers won 11 national titles between 1952 and ’58. Since then, only four Pitt wrestlers have won championships, most recently current coach Keith Gavin in 2008.
Wrestling didn’t come easily to Schirf, even when he won his championship bout.
“I had an almost perfect season,” he said of his junior year at Latrobe in 1952, the start of the school’s wrestling program. “We wrestled Greensburg twice. The second time, I won. If it hadn’t been for that, it would have been a perfect season — all losses.
“We were fodder. The other team used to put a quarter in the pot to see who would get the quickest pin.”
But Schirf lost only twice as a senior and became one of the top wrestlers in the area. Good thing, because he wasn’t much of a lineman on the football field.
“I wasn’t any good,” he said. “The only thing I can tell you about that is coach (Ray) Wild couldn’t understand how I could be that good at wrestling and not any good at football.”
Eventually, Schirf caught the eye of Pitt’s first wrestling coach, Rex Peery.
“My mother was in touch with coach Peery. He took a chance on me, and I guess the rest was history,” Schirf said.
At Pitt, Schirf encountered several older wrestlers, four of whom had won national championships, including Rex’s sons, three-time winners Hugh and Ed Peery, Joe Solomon and Ed DeWitt. Canonsburg’s Hal Hunter, who later coached the Steelers offensive line under Chuck Noll, also was on that team.
“I couldn’t beat anybody in that wrestling room,” Schirf said.
But by the time he was a senior, Schirf had a another perfect record, only this time he won all his matches.
“All the guys who were better than I was had graduated,” he said.
Schirf, who splits his time between Marco Island, Fla., and Indian Lake in Somerset County, said the 191-pound weight class in 1957 was “one of the easier weights. It wasn’t that loaded with talent.
He said his match with Stremic was “nothing to brag about, the worst match of the year.”
“He and his coach had figured a way to get around me. He wrestled not to be taken down,” Schirf said. “When neither one of us could ride the other one out, he dropped back to 2 on 1 (2 hands on one leg), which at that time was legal. I had a hard time getting away from that.”
They wrestled to a draw through two overtime periods, and Schirf said he was declared the winner on a 2-1 split referees’ decision.
A year later, Schirf and Arnold Palmer were honored by the Latrobe Jaycees. Again, Schirf was humbled.
“I was already a has-been,” he said, “and he was just on his way up.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .